Transportation, again: Can dysfunctionality be functional?

Following up on last week's post on the Federal Highway Fund, I want to comment on a post this week on the Brookings Institution website (originally published in Politico). The authors, both policy experts, recommend that Congress quit their five-year-old practice of passing last-minute extensions of the Federal Highway Fund, and seriously address our nation's crumbling transportation infrastructure. They recommend an ad hoc Special Joint Committee on Infrastructure, modeled after recent budget summits, composed of Senators and Representatives from both parties and all relevant committees. The committee would be charged with writing a long-term authorization for the Highway Fund, including identification of funding sources, by a stated deadline. "Action to preserve our nation's infrastructure," they hope, "could be proof that Congress is not totally broken."

Their argument assumes, in a semi-stated way, there exists a cross-partisan consensus that: [a] our transportation infrastructure is in desperate straits; [b] infrastructure in bad repair should be repaired; [c] money could be mobilized on behalf of this cause once there is the political will; and [d] once the money is mobilized governments will dedicate it to repairing infrastructure. While 'a' may be beyond argument, and 'c' has a lot of truth to it, the other two should be questioned.

The main problem with 'c' is Congress's prudent pay-as-you-go spending rules. In a universe where new spending could be covered by borrowing in a more or less unlimited way, "PAYGO" forces tough choices. The American Society of Civil Engineers' 2013 report calls for an additional $170 billion annually on roads alone through 2028. (OK, the ASCE is not unbiased, and this amount is certainly exaggerated, but I like the shock factor.) Throw in bridges, rail, ports, inland waterways and aviation and you have a huge backlog of costly projects that would overwhelm federal and state budgets. This isn't something that can be covered by raising the gasoline tax and selling some federal assets. (See Strong Towns' analysis of the 2009-10 transportation effort here.) No wonder members of Congress are balking.

As a result, it is, or should be, becoming increasingly obvious that we have too much infrastructure. According to Strong Towns, state officials in Iowa and Tennessee have acknowledged as much, and Illinois governor Bruce Rauner recently nixed a huge new Chicagoland highway. That this reality has not been more widely acknowledged may be that it's not seen as politically advantageous to acknowledge limits. (Here in Iowa, the presidential campaign is well underway, and candidates only advocates limits on groups they don't like, like teachers' unions for Republicans or the 1 percent for Democrats.) Or maybe we're not that good at math. But really, some of our roads, bridges and so forth need to be abandoned so we can keep up the rest. This is something Gotbaum and Rivlin's ad hoc committee may well be able to coordinate, but could they possibly get it through the whole chambers?

Finally, there's the matter of how the money is spent. Gotbaum and Rivlin lament, "What was once a must-pass national transportation program has for some become 'pork'..." Well, of course it has! Iowa passed a 10 percent increase in the gasoline tax last spring, sold as an infrastructure repair fix, then immediately set about building new highways. This experience has been repeated all over the country, and that's with the states spending their own money. Federal grants tend to be treated by states and localities as windfalls; sure, some of that money will find its way to crumbling infrastructure, but much if not most winds up getting diverted to new construction (which, of course, increases maintenance obligations over time).

I share the authors' concerns, both with our national transportation infrastructure and our dysfunctional Congress. Nevertheless, as Paul J. Quirk and I argued a long time ago, stalemate is often better than ill-advised action (in "Explaining Deadlock: Domestic Policymaking in the Bush Presidency," in Lawrence C. Dodd and Calvin Jillson (eds), New Perspectives on American Politics, CQ Press, 1994). Let's by all means have a national conversation about infrastructure, but let's not rush to pass something, and when we do pass something let it be rational.


SOURCE: Joshua Gotbaum and Alice M. Rivlin, "So Congress Wants to Get Serious about Highways?" Brookings, 5 August 2015

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